Let’s celebrate the holidays with another Naked Truth post and review a published novel as if it were a submission to a writing workshop—no kid gloves or pulled punches here—this is a full bore breakdown. Today we’re looking at George Salis’ debut novel, Sea Above, Sun Below, and we will highlight my favorite three aspects of the book along with three areas I think should have been reconsidered.
A quick synopsis: this is a novel set in the present day about skydivers trying to break the world record for “most number of people in the air” and is a magical-realist parable for “the Fall” of Adam and Eve. This time, as a literal fall as the characters catapult towards the ground. On the literary/speculative side, I’d say Sea Above, Sun Below leans in hard to the literary wing, as the book even starts with a quote from Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Let’s look at what the author got right with the three “+’s“:
+ Strong prose reminiscent of Rushdie, Borges, Ballard, etc.
Salis has a real knack for descriptions and nails that lyrical, philosophical style so coveted by many writers and readers. The scenes move forward at a good pace while all of the necessary bits are described in ways that make for smooth, enjoyable reading. His influences come from so many different places that it’s tough to pin down exactly where they originate, but I would guess he has a library stocked with all the major literary magical realists, as he does a good job harmonizing with those types of voices.
+ Dialogue provides balance
In contrast to the complex, winding sentences of the prose, this book’s dialogue is witty and terse. Salis often eschews dialogue tags because it’s obvious who is talking in a scene and this breaks up the larger chunks of passages nicely. The chapter with all the skydivers hanging out in the hippie-drome area strikes me as the most vivid moment in the book—when the fictive dream was fully realized and I really felt “there” as a reader.
+ Free skydiving lessons included!
I love it when a novel can teach me something while providing a compelling story, and this book gives a fun glance into skydiving culture that I’d never seen before. I’ve met a few “skydiving junkies” in my travels—folks who earn up enough money to spend a whole month skydiving every day while camping near the jump site—and this novel provides further insight into lives like theirs. Expect a lot of strange characters burning on the edge of sanity, including a very unlikable, but well written, “macho” kind of guy.
Now let’s look at the three Δ’s, or changes I think should have been considered.
Δ No justified margins?
While you should totally read this hilarious post in The New Yorker, I am a fan of justified margins, which either the editor or author of Sea Above, Sun Below has decided to omit. One the one hand, I can see how this design choice fits the format of the book—the story is about “falling off the edge” of something and this is replicated on the sentence-by-sentence level as the reader reads. But ultimately, I found this aspect distracting. Most books have justified margins (while many websites don’t), and if I’m wearing my editor’s hat, I’d say that anything which distracts the reader should be changed. Perhaps the layout editing fees were too high, or some other reason? Who knows…
Δ Sound effects become irritating
POW. Bop boop beep. Shhhhhhh.
I found Salis’ use of onomatopoeia a weird contrast to his otherwise delicate sentences. Occasional sound effects can be incredibly effective—look at the beginning of Brave New World, for example—but using them too often throws off many readers. I’ve always been a fan of a solid metaphor or simile in place of an italicized whoosh or whatever, and I would have liked to see Salis replace many of these moments with a skillful description. While this may only be my opinion, overusing these types of literary devices feels lazy and out of place for this work.
Δ The “Fix Up” aspect goes a bit sideways for me halfway through
I noticed that many different sections of this book have been published as short works elsewhere, giving the book a “fix up” kind of quality that wasn’t enjoyable for me. By the time I hit p. 168 with Peter’s journal I found myself holding too many loose ends of plot threads: there’s something about Adam’s dad being an angel, and his girlfriend is scared of being pregnant or had an abortion or something, and there’s the whole car accident thing? While some readers love the “puzzle” aspects of a story like this, it wasn’t for me. Of course, I also don’t really enjoy Gene Wolfe for this reason, who is largely considered as science fiction’s James Joyce, so this might be my own personal preference. While I did finish the book, it would require a couple of re-reads for me to go back and figure out what exactly is happening, though the ending is tied up nicely.
In conclusion, if you’re a fan of magical realism and want to see a modern and unique introspection on skydiving with a tapestry of philosophy and myth woven in, Sea Above, Sun Below is the book for you. Take a look and give it an order here.
Until next time,